The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.
Prominent among the themes of the parashiyot (Torah portions) between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) is the insistence that our community be built on a solid foundation of holiness and justice. This theme was articulated at great length in the "holiness code" (Leviticus 19) of Parashat Kedoshim. It also was expressed in Parashat Emor, with its instructions to look after the needs of the poor in our community (Leviticus 23:22). This week, in the culmination of the Book of Leviticus, we once again encounter a strong emphasis on the theme of holiness and justice.
Parashat B’hukotai, the last portion in Leviticus, focuses in part on the consequences of a lack of holiness and justice. This reading contains a series of blessings and curses that portend the rewards and punishments that will be meted out on the Jewish people in direct proportion to their observance of the Torah. Strikingly, the section of curses consists of exactly 49 verses–so too, the counting of the Omer, the semi-mourning period between Pesach and Shavuot, consists of 49 days. This passage warns of the destruction of the land, the destruction of the nation, and the potential for Jewish exile.
What may be most disturbing in this section of B’hukotai is the utter absence of any mention of the rapprochement between God and the Jewish people that would end the horrific exile and usher in the messianic age. In a different place, near its very end, the Torah states a promise of redemption after exile: "The Lord your God will restore you from your captivity when [or "if"] you will return to your God" (Deuteronomy 30:2).
In contrast, Parashat B’hhukotai, in lieu of the promise of ultimate redemption, seems to offer us solace in the form of God’s remembrance of the covenants He made with our forefathers: "I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham, and I will remember My land" (Leviticus 26:42).
A careful reader of the Hebrew text can discover a clue to this mysterious lack of "redemption language" in the unusual spelling of Yaakov (Jacob) in this verse. Here, as in only four other locations throughout the entire Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), the Hebrew letter vav is included in the name to represent the "o" sound of Yaak-o-v.
According to the great medieval commentator Rashi, these five instances of a variant spelling of Yaakov, with the additional vav, correspond to the five times in the Tanakh when the name Eliyahu (Elijah, the prophet who is seen as heralding the messiah’s coming) is written without a vav. Rashi explains that these linguistic anomalies suggest that Jacob "took" a letter from Elijah’s name as a "collateral," so that Elijah would be sure to come and herald the redemption of Jacob’s descendants.
Why is the divine promise of redemption, of an ultimate "sabbatical world" of holiness and justice, suggested by a vav, and not some other letter? In his commentary on the Book of Leviticus, Rav Dovid Feinstein, a contemporary scholar and teacher, reflects on the literal meaning of vav.
In the Torah passage on the building of the mishkan (desert sanctuary), vavim (plural of vav) are the connecting hooks that linked the curtains to the poles that supported them. Thus, the letter vav represents that which connects one thing to another. To put it another way: the vav represents the unity that is achieved when all elements are working together to achieve a common purpose.
In terms of the fate of the Jewish people, the rabbinic sages believed that the Jews’ great exile after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE was caused by the senseless hatred that they had felt toward each other. This intra-Jewish divisiveness and rancor can only be fully reversed when we reacquire the type of unity that characterized the Jews, who were "one people with one heart" when they received the Torah on Mount Sinai, the occasion that Shavuot celebrates.
According to a mishnah (passage) in Tractate Eduyot of the Talmud, in heralding the end of the exile, Elijah will also come to bring peace and unity among the Jews. Perhaps this is why God specifically took a vav from Elijah’s name. It is as if God were saying that Elijah should hurry to reunite the people of Israel and thereby put an end to our generations of exile.
As we count the last few days until Shavuot, perhaps we would all do well to examine how our words, deeds, and actions contribute to the building of a Jewish community, and an American and global society. We should seek to promote unity among Jews, and among all people, and should infuse holiness and justice into everything we do. By acting in this way, we’d demonstrate that we’ve put into practice the lessons from the Torah readings of these past few weeks–and would bring ourselves that much closer to the ultimate redemption that awaits us all.